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Commonwealth v. Stollar

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

January 21, 2014

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
Patrick Jason STOLLAR, Appellant.

Argued Oct. 19, 2011.

Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered on March 24, 2008 in the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division of Allegheny County, at No. CP-02-CR-0009062-2003 & CP-02-CR-0009565-2003. Trial Court Judge: David R. Cashman, Judge.

Page 636

Kenneth A. Snarey, Esq., for Patrick Jason Stollar.

Michael Wayne Streily, Esq., Nicole Thomas Wetherton, Esq., Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Esq., PA Office of Attorney General, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.




This is a capital direct appeal from judgments of sentence imposed by the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County on March 24, 2008. Because we conclude that the reviewable issues raised by Appellant's appeal are without merit, sufficient evidence supports the verdict, and the sentence of death was not arbitrarily imposed or the product of passion or prejudice, we affirm the judgments of sentence.

The relevant facts of this case are as follows. Seventy-eight-year-old Jean Heck was found by her neighbors lying dead in a pool of blood in her house in Upper St. Clair Township, on June 4, 2003.

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She had been beaten, strangled, stomped upon, and stabbed. Prior to the discovery of Ms. Heck's body, one of the neighbors saw a man leave Ms. Heck's house and drive away in a newer model vehicle. She later identified this individual in a police photo array as Appellant, Patrick Jason Stollar.

After police investigators arrived on the scene, they discovered that Ms. Heck's purses did not contain any cash, credit cards, identification, or checkbooks and that they appeared to have been rifled through. The police also discovered a piece of paper on the kitchen counter that had written upon it an address and telephone number, which were shortly determined to be the address and telephone number of Appellant's mother. It was later discovered that during the time the police were investigating the scene at the victim's house on June 4, 2003, Appellant was at his bank unsuccessfully attempting to cash a check drawn from the victim's account, purportedly executed by the victim, and made payable to him in the amount of $4,000. The next day, Appellant attempted to cash a second check drawn from the victim's account, again purportedly executed by the victim, and made payable to him in the amount of $2,500.

Based upon the address discovered at the scene and other evidence, the police searched for Appellant at his former place of employment, where a co-employee informed the police that Appellant was staying at her apartment with her and her then-fiance. The co-employee signed a consent form for the police to search the apartment. Upon arriving at the apartment, the police observed Appellant running toward the bathroom and attempting to hide. The police told him that they wished to speak with him in the hallway. Appellant consented, and upon reaching the hallway, he suddenly declaimed, " I killed that woman, I murdered that woman." Trial Court Opinion, dated 6/28/10, at 9.

After Appellant was arrested for the murder of Ms. Heck and given his Miranda warnings, he voluntarily made a statement to the police, which was taped. In this statement, Appellant confessed to the murder, providing details of the crime and further telling the police that he had gone to the victim's house with the intent of robbing and killing her. Appellant additionally told the police that he had buried the clothing he had worn during the crime, the knife he had used to stab the victim, and certain items he had stolen from the victim's purses. On June 6, 2003, Appellant took the police to the site where he had buried the aforementioned items. At the site, the police recovered the knife used to stab the victim, blood-spattered clothing, blood-covered tissues that corroborated Appellant's statement that he had wiped blood from the knife with tissues taken from the victim's house, the victim's checkbook, a wallet containing the victim's driver's license, and several credit cards that belonged to the victim. Later, Appellant provided another taped confession to the police that corroborated his earlier statements.

Appellant was charged with one count of criminal homicide and received notice that the Commonwealth would be seeking the death penalty based on the aggravating factor set forth at 42 Pa.C.S. ยง 9711(d)(6) (the defendant committed a killing in the perpetration of a felony). With respect to the latter, Appellant was also charged with one count each of robbery, burglary, and theft by unlawful taking, and with two counts of forgery. Counsel was appointed to represent Appellant. At time of trial, Appellant's stand-by counsel for the guilt phase was Robert L. Foreman, Esq., and

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his penalty-phase counsel was James E. DePasquale, Esq. A forensic social worker was also appointed to aid in Appellant's defense. Thereafter, the Commonwealth notified Appellant and the trial court that it intended to present victim impact evidence from eight witnesses during the penalty phase of trial.

A series of pre-trial proceedings, including some concerning Appellant's mental health and competency, occurred. Hearings were held on April 24, April 26, and May 1, 2006, regarding Appellant's desire to plead guilty. On May 1, 2006, following an extensive colloquy with the court and counsel, Appellant pled guilty to first-degree murder and the other charges. The very next day, however, another hearing was held at which the court granted Appellant leave to withdraw his guilty pleas. Appellant had apparently made what appeared to be a suicide attempt the evening before.[1] On May 18, 2006, Appellant was ordered by the trial court to be committed for involuntary mental health treatment.

After Appellant had undergone his course of treatment, on October 3 and October 10, 2006, the trial court held hearings regarding Appellant's request to represent himself at the guilt phase of trial. Colloquies were conducted with Appellant on both dates, and an examining psychiatrist testified that Appellant's decision to waive representation and to proceed pro se was made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. Following these hearings, the trial court determined that Appellant was competent to waive his right to the assistance of counsel. However, following additional hearings, including one on April 17, 2007, where an examining psychiatrist testified regarding her observations of Appellant, the court determined that Appellant was not competent to stand trial. On April 18, 2007, Appellant was once again committed for involuntary mental health treatment.

Thereafter, on July 19, 2007, and upon motion of the Commonwealth, the trial court entered an order: (1) providing that the warden of the Allegheny County Jail place Appellant in isolation in its mental health unit and maintain a constant suicide watch; (2) providing that the warden monitor Appellant's ingestion of prescribed medication and immediately inform the court if Appellant failed to take his medication; (3) authorizing the Commonwealth to conduct an independent psychiatric evaluation of Appellant by its expert witness at any time Appellant's competency was called into question until the termination of the case; and (4) requiring that the institutions that have already treated or evaluated Appellant for mental health issues provide relevant medical records to the Commonwealth for review by its expert witness.

On November 5, 2007, a pre-trial conference was held, at which time Appellant, following a colloquy with the court, once again asserted his right to represent himself at the guilt phase of his trial. Thereafter, Appellant filed a pro se petition indicating his intent to pursue a diminished capacity defense.

Voir dire commenced on January 30, 2008, and Appellant's jury trial began on February 12, 2008. During the guilt phase of his trial, Appellant acted as his own counsel. On February 20, 2008, the jury found Appellant guilty of all charges. On February 22, 2008, following the penalty phase of Appellant's trial, during which he was represented by counsel, the jury determined

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that the aggravating factor of homicide committed during the course of a commission of a robbery or burglary [2] outweighed the two mitigating factors found by the jury (Appellant's life history and his character [3]) and, accordingly, sentenced Appellant to death. Appellant was formally sentenced to death by the trial court on March 24, 2008. At that time, he was also sentenced to ten to twenty years' imprisonment for robbery, consecutive to his death sentence, and an additional ten to twenty years' imprisonment for burglary, consecutive to the robbery sentence.

Ken Snarey, Esq. was appointed to represent Appellant and filed post-sentence and then amended post-sentence motions. A post-sentence hearing was held on June 30, 2009, at which Appellant's penalty-phase counsel, James E. DePasquale, testified. On July 2, 2009, the trial court denied Appellant's post-sentence motions. Appellant then timely filed the instant direct appeal to this Court, raising three issues for our review.[4]

Sufficiency Review

" In all capital cases[,] this Court has a self-imposed duty to conduct an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a first-degree murder conviction. In conducting this review, we must view the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as the verdict-winner and determine whether the jury could have found every element of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Commonwealth v. Chamberlain, 612 Pa. 107, 30 A.3d 381, 393-94 (2011) (citations omitted).

Here, in order to sustain Appellant's first-degree murder conviction, we must be able to conclude that the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt the following three elements: (1) that the victim was unlawfully killed; (2) that Appellant is responsible for the killing; and (3) that Appellant acted with malice and a specific intent to kill. See Commonwealth v. Maisonet, 612 Pa. 539, 31 A.3d 689, 693 (2011). The killing must have been committed in a willful, deliberate, premeditated way. Commonwealth v. Flor, 606 Pa. 384, 998 A.2d 606, 615 (2010). We have reviewed in detail the notes of testimony from Appellant's trial in order to determine if the evidence was sufficient to establish these elements. As summarized in the following paragraphs, the evidence in support of Appellant's guilt of the first-degree murder of the victim was not merely sufficient, but compelling.

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Susan Schneid, one of Jean Heck's neighbors, testified that on the afternoon of June 4, 2003, she was inside her house cleaning when she heard two distinct, simultaneous screams coming from Ms. Heck's property, which was situated across the street from her property. Notes of Testimony (" NT." ) Trial, 2/12/08, at 50. Thereafter, she heard noise " like a little scuffle ... like a stomping sound." Id. at 51. Ms. Schneid observed a newer-model, two-door Ford Expedition or Explorer parked in the victim's yard, and some minutes after hearing the " scuffle" noise, saw a clean-cut looking man walk down the property's path, get into the vehicle, and drive casually away. Id. at 53-54; 57. Ms. Schneid later identified this man from a police photo array as Appellant. Id. at 71.

Being concerned about what she had heard, Ms. Schneid contacted a neighbor, Jennifer Montgomery, to meet at the victim's house to make sure that the victim was not in any difficulty. Id. at 61. A third neighbor, Kelly Sharkey, joined their endeavor. Ultimately, they came to observe the victim's body lying in a pool of blood on the floor of her house just inside the back door. Id. at 68-69. They called the police, who arrived shortly thereafter. [5]

Police Officer John Wharton of the Upper St. Clair Police Department testified that he responded to a call regarding an injured woman on June 4, 2003, between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. Id. at 90. At the scene, he encountered three women who directed the police to the body and told them of the tan SUV that had been parked at the property just before their investigation. Officer Wharton ascertained that the victim was dead, noting that her shoulder appeared to have been dislocated, that there was a large quantity of blood around her head, and that the victim had three lacerations on her back. Id. at 94, 98. Officer Wharton checked the house in order to determine that the assailant was not still on the premises. The officer found no signs of forced entry. Id. at 94-97.

Detective Gary Tallent, a detective with the Allegheny County Police Department, testified that he was summoned to the victim's house on June 4, 2003, and had the responsibility for processing the crime scene. Id. at 103-05. Detective Tallent observed that the victim's body had been pulled by her shirt, which had been wrenched over her head. Id. at 134-35. Detective Tallent also discovered that a knife was missing from the butcher block on the kitchen counter and that the victim's purses had been disturbed and were devoid of cash, checkbooks, credit cards, and other identification. Id. at 121-22, 131.

Detective Tallent further testified that a piece of paper discovered on the kitchen counter by Officer Wharton had written upon it an address and telephone number that corresponded to the address and telephone number of Appellant's mother and stepfather. The address also corresponded to the address set forth on Appellant's driver's license. An investigation soon revealed that Appellant had registered a tan 2000 Ford Explorer to that same address. Id. at 127-28. Finally, Detective Tallent testified that investigations revealed that the victim was having landscaping work done on her property around the time of her murder by a landscaping company for which Appellant had briefly worked. For these reasons, Appellant became a suspect. Id. at 128-29.

Joshua Arthur testified that he had worked with Appellant on a landscaping

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job at the victim's house on a day prior to the date of the murder. He observed that Appellant was shirking his landscaping duties by constantly engaging the victim in lengthy conversations. Id. at 144-45, 154. Andrea Kostella, the victim's daughter, testified that she lived with her mother when not working as a flight attendant, that her mother had checking accounts at Merrill Lynch and PNC Bank, and that her mother was not comfortable talking with strangers, but would open her door to a trusted or recognized person. Id. at 160-62.

Gretchen Hoge testified that on June 4, 2003, she was working as a bank teller at the Washington Federal Bank. She testified that on that day, in the afternoon, Appellant came into the branch and approached her to cash a check from the victim's PNC Bank account for $4,000. Id. at 166-67. She further testified that she told Appellant that he could either deposit the check into his account, where it would be subject to a three-day hold, or he could take it to a PNC Bank branch and try to cash it there. Id. at 167. She then testified that Appellant politely— and calmly— informed her that he would take the check to a PNC Bank branch. Id. at 168-69. This interaction was captured on the Washington Federal Bank's video camera, which documented the encounter as commencing at 2:59 on June 4, 2003. The still images from this video were introduced into evidence. Id. at 169-71.

Barbara Clemons testified that on June 5, 2003, she was working as a bank teller at the same branch of the Washington Federal Bank as the one where Appellant had attempted to cash a check drawn on the victim's account on the previous day. She testified that on June 5th, at approximately 1:27 p.m., Appellant came into the branch and approached her to partially deposit and partially cash a check from the victim's PNC Bank account in the amount of $2,500. Id. at 181-83, 189. Ms. Clemons explained to Appellant that the bank would not be able to cash the check because his checking account had been closed and there was not enough money in his savings account to cover what he wanted. Clemons explained that the best that the bank could offer would be for him to deposit the check, place it on hold until it cleared, and deduct from the check the back fees he owed on his checking account. Id. at 184. Appellant appeared to be satisfied with this process. The interaction was captured by the bank's video camera, and, again, still images from the video were introduced into evidence, as was the check that Appellant deposited. Id. at 185-90.

Tina Cline Puchi testified that she knew Appellant from working with him at an Applebee's restaurant in Washington, PA. Id. at 194-95. On June 4, 2003, she was living with her then-fiance, William Puchi, in an apartment, and when she returned home from work, she found that Appellant was watching a movie with Mr. Puchi. Id. at 195, 197. Appellant told the couple that he might be in some trouble, specifically the possibility that harassment charges might be made against him by a woman whom he had dated. Appellant had a scratch on his left neck. Id. at 199.

Appellant appeared again at the couple's apartment the next morning and asked Mr. Puchi to assist him with picking up his truck from a garage. Id. at 202-03. Ms. Puchi then went to work at the restaurant, where she was informed by her manager that the police were looking for Appellant. Ms. Puchi called the police and informed them that Appellant might be at her apartment. Id. at 204. Ms. Puchi then left the restaurant and met the police outside of her apartment, at which time she signed a

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consent form for them to search the premises. Id. at 205-06.

William Puchi testified in a manner that corroborated Ms. Puchi's account of Appellant's appearances at the apartment. Id. at 211-20. He further testified that when the police arrived at the apartment on June 5th, Appellant ran into or toward the bathroom but was soon arrested. Id. at 220, 227.

Detective William Palmer of the Allegheny County Police Department testified that he was one of the detectives who arrested Appellant on June 5, 2003. At the time of his arrest, Appellant told Detective Palmer that the Puchis " had nothing to do with this" and that he was simply " hiding out" there. Id. at 235.

Detective Andrew Schurman of the Allegheny County Police Department also testified that he was one of the detectives who arrested Appellant on June 5, 2003. NT. Trial, 2/14/08, at 246-47. Detective Schurman testified that once Appellant was arrested and taken outside of the apartment, he said: " I committed murder" and " I killed that lady." Id. at 248. Detective Schurman further testified that when Appellant arrived at the police station following the arrest, Appellant was read his Miranda rights and provided with a Rights Warning Waiver form, which he signed. Id. at 249-53. Appellant declined to assert his rights and showed no signs of being under the influence of any substance during this time. Id. at 253-54.

Detective Schurman then testified that Appellant provided him and the other law enforcement personnel present with a statement. In this statement, Appellant indicated that he had met the victim while working on a landscaping job at her house and had returned to her house several days later, on June 4, 2003, " with the intention of robbing and killing her." Id. at 256. Appellant stated that he approached the victim with an offer to perform additional landscaping work, which the victim declined. When the victim turned to walk back into the house, Appellant stated that he grabbed her, threw her to the ground, kicked her, and stomped on her head and neck. He then pulled her by her leg and shirt into the kitchen, where he left her gurgling on the floor. Appellant stated that after leaving the victim in this condition, he went through the house in search of her money and checkbooks. After finding two checkbooks and a purse, Appellant then went back through the kitchen and proceeded to stab the victim with a knife from the kitchen butcher block to make sure that she was dead. Appellant stated that he then wiped the knife off with a tissue, washed his hands in the sink, left through the back door, and then got into his car and drove away. Id. at 256-58.

Detective Schurman continued his testimony by describing Appellant's attempt, as related to him by Appellant, to cash one of the victim's checks and his burial of some of the evidence of the crime, including the knife and bloody clothing, in a wooded cemetery. Id. at 258. Detective Schurman then asked Appellant why he went to the victim's house. The detective testified that Appellant stated to him and the other law enforcement personnel present that he went to the victim's house, again, " with the intention of robbing and killing her" so that he could " get money to buy nice things." Id. at 259.

Detective Schurman then testified that Appellant agreed to take him and other officers to the site at a cemetery where he had buried the evidence of the murder. Detectives Schurman and Tallent and two uniformed officers accompanied Appellant to the cemetery, where nine items were ...

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